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updated 1/14/2011 7:38:00 PM ET 2011-01-15T00:38:00

President Barack Obama plans to loosen Cuban travel policy to allow students and church groups to go to the communist country, the administration announced Friday.

Students seeking academic credit and churches traveling for religious purposes will be able to go to Cuba. The plan will also let any American send as much as $500 every three months to Cuban citizens who are not part of the Castro administration and are not members of the Communist Party.

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Also, more airports will be allowed to offer charter service. Right now, only three airports — in Miami, Los Angeles and New York City — can offer authorized charters to Cuba. That will be expanded to any international airport with proper customs and immigration facilities as long as licensed travel agencies ask to run charters from the airport.

The White House press office sent out a release saying Obama had directed the changes, which do not need congressional approval. They will be put in place within two weeks.

Changes that Obama made last year already increased Cuban-Americans' ability to visit family and send money to relatives. The changes are similar to travel policies under President Bill Clinton. Critics said they will not improve the lives of Cubans.

"Loosening these regulations will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba. These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights. And they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and the House Foreign Affairs Committee chair. "These changes undermine U.S. foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime."

Sen. Bill Nelson's office earlier confirmed the changes after the State Department briefed him, but Nelson was traveling and couldn't be reached for comment on the plans.

Pepe Hernandez, head of the moderate Cuban-American National Foundation, called the changes very positive, most importantly the decision to allow all Americans to send money to Cubans.

"It's going to help the interaction between regular Cubans and U.S. citizens, it's going to help Cuban people inside the island to gain independence from the Cuban government, especially now that roughly a million will be without jobs," he said, referring to Raul Castro's decision to reduce the government workforce.

Hernandez said the Cuban government would get some benefit from the remittances, but that he could live with that because Cuban citizens, particularly dissidents, would now have another source of support.

Archbishop Thomas Wenski, the top Catholic leader in South Florida, applauded the changes.

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"The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops has worked tirelessly for years with White House representatives promoting greater contact between people of Cuba and the free world," Wenski said.

Several Cuban-Americans interviewed in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood said they had no problems with the changes.

"At the best, it's good for those students to see how bad it is," said Marta Bergasa, 60, a lab technician who was born in Cuba. "The problem is the students from there cannot come here."

Others don't think the changes will do any good. Maria Vazquez, owner of the Sentir Cubano memorabilia shop, said the change would not do anything to help democracy in Cuba.

"I'm totally against the idea," Vazquez said.

"I think what our country needs is freedom, not these little patches of students going to Cuba."

Associated Press writers Matt Sedensky, Christine Armario and Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Caribbean way of life

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  1. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of the Barbados Tourism Authority shows Harrismith Beach, Barbados. Sun, surf and sand are the main draws on this tropical Caribbean island. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Barbados

    This undated photo courtesy of Barbados Tourism Authority shows The Watering Hole rum shop in Barbados. The rum shops on the island are good places to sample local food and drink, watch a game of dominos, or just get to know the friendly and hospitable Bajans. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. St. Lucia

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  4. St. Lucia

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    Antigua, located in the Northeastern Caribbean, is a popular tourist spot. While there are high-end, stylish hotels, the island also features a large number of mid-priced options. Visitors will find beach bars, restaurants, casinos and shopping. (Richard I'Anson  / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Antigua

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    An old church building is seen in La Romana, the third-largest city in the Dominican Republic. (Wayne Walton / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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    The cupola of San Juan Cemetary as well as colorful homes sit next to the ocean in Old San Juan, the original capital city of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The old city is a historic district of seven square blocks made up of ancient buildings and colonial homes, massive stone walls and vast fortifications, sunny parks and cobblestoned streets. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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